May 11, 2012

Research: Romney's anti-gay assault fits typical pattern

Romney then
Outed for physical and verbal abuse of gay classmates during high school, U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney is trivializing the incidents as "pranks" and "dumb things," and claiming not to know the boy he assaulted was gay.

To me, his response came as no surprise. This is precisely what most gay-bashers think and say, according to my groundbreaking research on the motivations of perpetrators.

In the first empirical research into prevalence rates of and motivations for antigay harassment and violence by noncriminal young adults, I found antigay behaviors like Romney's to be alarmingly commonplace. One in 10 young adults in the politically liberal San Francisco Bay Area admitted to physical violence or threats against presumed homosexuals, and another 24 percent acknowledged name-calling. The percentages were even higher among young men. The frequency of self-acknowledged antigay behaviors among a general population sample was consistent with victim studies in which large proportions of lesbians and gay men report sexuality-related victimization.

Like Mitt Romney, most gay-bashers with whom I conducted followup interviews insisted that they were not motivated by hatred of homosexuals. This despite the fact that many of their assaults fell within legal definitions of a hate crime. Many, like Romney, were instead acting as self-appointed enforcers of gender norms for male and female behavior.

Washington Post reporter Jason Horowitz was able to track down five former classmates of Romney’s who gave similar accounts of how Romney led a "vicious" assault against a closeted gay classmate at his prestigious boarding school in Michigan. The victim, John Lauber, was "perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality." Romney reportedly became incensed about Lauber’s bleached-blond hair that draped over one eye:

"He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!" an incensed Romney told Matthew Friedemann, his close friend in the Stevens Hall dorm, according to Friedemann's recollection. Mitt, the teenage son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, kept complaining about Lauber's look, Friedemann recalled.

A few days later, Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school's collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber's hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.

"It happened very quickly, and to this day it troubles me," said [Thomas] Buford, the school's wrestling champion, who said he joined Romney in restraining Lauber. Buford subsequently apologized to Lauber, who was "terrified," he said. (Buford later became a prosecutor. )

Soon after the incident, Lauber disappeared, expelled for smoking a cigarette. He died of liver cancer in 2004.

In defending himself, Romney told Fox News that he "had no idea what that individual's sexual orientation might be."

But that misses the point.

Romney now
In my in-depth interviews with antigay assailants, all insisted that their assaults were not driven by animus toward homosexuals. Rather than punishment of homosexuality per se, their assaults on presumed homosexuals were aimed at punishing those who violated mandatory sex role norms. Boys who do not conform to expected gender norms are labeled very early on as "sissies" or "fags" and subjected to merciless bullying. This peer policing is a very effective way of enforcing hierarchical gender relations. 

By wearing his hair in a feminine manner, Lauber had violated the antifemininity norm that is part of the bedrock of traditional masculinity, which apparently dominated at the elite Cranbrook School.

Romney's verbal denigration of another former classmate, also a closeted homosexual, fits this same pattern. When Gary Hummel tried to speak up in English class, Romney shouted “atta girl!” at him, Hummel told the Post.

So, Romney's assaultive and bullying conduct was not so much to punish Lauber and Hummel for being gay as for being different, for having the audacity not to conform to his chest-thumping notions of manliness. This contempt for insufficiently masculine men is a core feature of our culture, helping to explain Romney's self-righteousness and his facile dismissal of his harmful conduct as innocent hijinks.


Anonymous said...

I dunno Karen, the Romney bully story seems suspect now given the most recent news coverage. At the least, it certainly seems politically motivated. Thus, it's hard to know right now where the truth lies.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Hi Steve,

That's certainly the spin the Romney campaign is trying to put on it. But to me the Post story seems exceptionally well researched. It's pretty difficult to find so many first-hand witnesses. The strongest rebuttal the Romney people seem to be able to come up with is that the victim's sister didn't know about the incident. But plenty of sisters don't know about the abuse that their gay siblings endure. And that was all the more true back in the 1960s.

As far as political motivation: Romney is running for president, not for the post of county dogcatcher. Prior incidents of assaults and bullying of gay classmates certainly seems relevant to his fitness. Don't forget, he is the one making opposition to gay couples and families a centerpiece of his campaign.

Thanks for taking the time to comment.

Jim said...

Karen, here in the south in the 1960s if someone was found out being a "queer" they usually turned up dead, or at the least outcast. I'm not saying that was right, but that's the way it was. As the only Morman in the Cranbrook school I expect Romney was the butt of some bullying himself!!! Plus I think that the majority of the people understand that homosexuality is not a good lifestyle because of the un-natural nature of it and the increased risk of disease.

Anonymous said...

Karen, the issue isn't one of relevance but motive. Don't you think it's a bit suspicious that this story came out one day after the President announced that he supports same-sex marriage recognition by the states?

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Having been a daily news journalist in a prior life, I know that the reporter must have been working on this for quite some time, in order to have tracked down and interviewed as many sources as he had. It's certainly possible that the Post rushed to get the story into print once the gay marriage issue began heating up, but to me that's not as devious as you seem to think. So what if the story had come out two weeks earlier? Or, potentially more damagingly to Romney, closer to the election? It's still an important news story. The voters have a right to know that one of the candidates was bullying and assaulting weaker peers when he was in high school. Perhaps a tiger can change his stripes, or perhaps some voters don't care, but the public certainly has a right to know about this before deciding on its next president.

Monica Pignotti said...

It has been conclusively shown that this story about Romney is completely false and the result of what appears to be highly responsible reporting. See:

This is a politically motivated urban legend that appears to have taken on a life of its own.

Monica Pignotti said...

Karen, when someone is making such a serious accusation, the burden of proof is on the accuser and the highly irresponsible report on this did not demonstrate that there was any good evidence that this incident ever occurred and given that the sister did refute it, the political motivation is pretty obvious. There is no evidence that this incident ever occurred and I am very disappointed that you would be spreading what amounts to an urban legend at best.

PDiddie, aka Perry Hussein Dorrell said...

WaPo ombudsman answers Steve, debunks Monica Pignotti:

Monica Pignotti said...

It doesn't appear that these malicious lies about Romney have had a negative impact on the polls. Thank goodness, most of the American public does not uncritically accept everything they read in the media. The latest Rasmussen poll of likely voters has Romney at 50% and Obama at 42%.

Erika said...

There is nothing in your fox news article that indicates the story is conclusively false, I'm not sure how you would arrive to that conclusion. The family had no knowledge of the incident and object to the depiction of their son. There is nothing said about the incident itself.

Anonymous said...


I never said that the people don't have a right to know, rather I questioned the motive of the story. We are in the midst of an election season and I think it's prudent to exercise heavy skepticism regarding any stories of either candidate. Additionally, as you well know, psychological science tells us that eyewitness memories of events that take place this far back in time are likely to be unreliable to some degree. But even assuming the reports are correct, I think it's likely that Romney is not the same person now that he was 40 years ago - after all, who among us are?

Now maybe Romney still is a bully, but I find it curious that so many have assumed this story to be true and informative of Romney's present character given all of the caveats I mentioned above.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Thanks, PDiddie. Clearly this story is touching a nerve in the Romney camp, but it is well researched and well reported and it appears very solid. There is no indication whatsoever that it is fabricated or exaggerated.

Mike said...

Single examples from High School should not be given excessive magnitude. What concerns me is not that Romney may have bullied when young and dumb, or that he has or may continue to share the general Republican dislike of homosexuality. What concerns me is a possible pattern of character retgarding bullying. Did he bully and abuse greater (uneven) power against the weaker one/s in high school to impose his will? Were Newt Gingrich's fairly well documented accusations about corporate bullying (companies and employees) to impose his personal enrichment another example of this pattern? This will become more elucidated as the election approaches, even with clouding from political partisanship.

Dr. Mark Worthen said...

If you consider 40% to be a majority ...

Dr. Mark Worthen said...

Excellent post Karen! I thought Romney's excuse sounded suspicious but I didn't know there was good research documenting such a pattern. Thank you for your scholarship and courage to point this out.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Thanks, Mark!

mshoultz said...

Romney himself "apologized" for the gay bullying that he perpetrated. I'd say the story is very real and further evidence of his non-presidential character. He's a bully, plain and simple, just look at his business practices.